The Proms Sondheim Ensemble
BBC Concert Orchestra
David Charles Abell conductor
Martin Duncan director
Master of all trades. Stephen Sondheim’s career has been a slippery alloy of brilliance and spite. The brilliance is entirely his; the spite seeps from Broadway‘s “vultures, hangers on, and harbingers of bad news.” The quote is from a BBC interview this spring, indicating that at 80, Sondheim either feels the old barbs or is reconciled to being the perpetual outsider. His melodies can be as sweet as cream toffee, but you have to walk over broken glass to get to them. Addicted to puzzles and word games, he inserts them liberally into his lyrics, which are never for the dull witted. Before him, the American musical was a national pastime. Show tunes made the top 40, and everyone knew the numbers from Oklahoma. (In Sondheim, the corn is as high as a salamander‘s eye.) Even Kurt Weill cottoned that he had to transform the scabrous ironies of his Berlin work into something anodyne and folksy once he crossed the Atlantic. Sondheim alone was willing to write with a razor and strop. The way that critics reviled him, you’d think he filched the champagne from Die Fledermaus and substituted cyanide.
None of that was remembered in Albert Hall when London put on a gala for Sondheim that was actually gala. Judi Dench and Bryn Terfel took the stage, and the performance standards all evening were high enough to suit a perfectionist like him. The quotient of chestnuts was low; the majority of the songs were from three of his acknowledged masterpieces, Sweeny Todd, A Little Night Music, and Follies. Walking down the stairs leading to the stage for his bow, the composer betrayed a hint of infirmity in his step, but on the radio he sounds uncannily like a man in his thirties. As usual with Sondheim, he is the least revealing of interviewees, delivering the facts and nothing but the facts, pausing to correct the misinformation about him that gluts the Internet (for example, that he invented a game called Psychiatry in which couches are moved around the board – I was sorry to hear that this was a fiction). He betrayed no emotion about his body of work, either, except to let slip that his greatest joy in life is to “trance out” as he composes, leaving the world behind. Otherwise, he took relish out of explaining that for him music was akin to mathematics.
The all-American musical as crafted by Rodgers and Hammerstein was doomed by the Sixties, a casualty of much broader cultural splintering and dissension. Sondheim wasn’t part of the slide; he came to resuscitate a dying art form, but on his own terms. As a twenty-something prodigy he had already written the lyrics for West Side Story and Gypsy and turned forty before he came into his own with Company (1970). Broadway is by nature a lagging social institution, and the marital malaise that Company dramatizes is more Darien, Connecticut in the Fifties than anything contemporary. But audiences were shocked, offering the logical complaint that they didn’t cross the bridge and blow a bundle on dinner in order to be reminded of their own depressing lives. Sondheim was launched on a trajectory that strung together spectacular flops (Follies), subject matter that embraced the repellent (Sweeney Todd) and the recherché (Sunday in the Park with George), while racking up no blockbuster shows after 1962 (with A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum) and only one song that made the charts (“Send in the Clowns,” recorded by Judy Collins). Premature funerals were regularly held for his career. He even had the bad luck to write a musical about presidential assassinations that opened on the eve of the first Gulf War; Assassins was reviled as unpatriotic. (To be honest, a show with twisty sympathies for John Wilkes Booth, Lee Harvey Oswald, and company was destined to be hated no matter when it appeared.)
His detractors be damned – what Bach did for the church cantata Sondheim did for the musical, raising it far above what came before. That’s if you esteem harmonic sophistication, an ear for Parisian savoir faire and ennui, a wit somewhere between La Rochefoucauld and Ogden Nash, and unabashed literary daring. None of those ingredients belonged on Broadway before him, and to this day large-scale revivals of Sondheim are scarce. The most notable in recent years have been mini-productions of Company, Sweeney Todd, and Sunday in the Park that began in London. The Donmar Warehouse has been more faithful to him than any other theater, and true to form, in September they are reviving his masterful, Pulitzer Prize-winning, and much disliked Passion. Its music is ravishing, but it commits the sin of having a very handsome man throw over a very beautiful woman for an ugly dying invalid. Typical.